It’s 2:45 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I’m performing my weekly ritual: playing five different arrangements of “Despacito” in a row at closing time in a Final Fantasy XIV roleplaying bar. It’s a joke between myself and my friend Allison Brown, one of the owners of the Gin Ironic. A wonderful, tedious joke that her regulars suffer through every Sunday night.
Allison’s bar is one of the many roleplaying venues in FFXIV; there are hundreds, all with their own unique stories. Roleplaying is a collaborative creative exercise in which people create and act out different characters within a shared world setting to tell a story. In tabletop gaming, it’s often done in real life or via voice chat; in FFXIV, it mostly takes place via text in-game. Venues are usually located in players’ personal housing, each decorated for the purpose of hosting visiting roleplayers. Upon visiting, you’ll find places very similar to their real-life analogues, with a few Final Fantasy twists and a whole lot of character.
In the Gin Ironic, for example, you might find a group of friends ordering drinks and then sipping on them while discussing their dating lives. At the table next to them, someone complains to a mercenary about their ongoing voidsent infestation issue, while in the back booth Estinien Wyrmblood has a quiet drink with his friends. And, of course, there’s the resident sin eater who serves tea.
Just the breadth of types of venues is impressive. The establishments run by the half-dozen or so venue owners I talked to for this piece include nightclubs, cafes, restaurants, taverns, bars, and fight pits. You can also find cult-run churches, teahouses, clothing stores, pirate ships, libraries, apothecaries, lounges, bathhouses, maid cafes, host clubs, casinos, or brothels.
Another key difference between venues is scale. Some roleplayers open a venue, advertise it, and hope it’ll pique people’s interest when they’re flipping through community Discords or browsing Party Finder (an in-game tool players can use to advertise for content or social activities). These venues tend to be focused on social gatherings. Allison’s bar, for example, started as a place for people — including those new to roleplaying — to hang out and make friends in a low-pressure environment.
Other players have a smaller audience in mind when they’re building a venue. One of the things that makes virtual venues unique is that you don’t have to pay bills to keep the lights on; hobbyists don’t always need to focus on scaling out. For Talon, who runs a bar and restaurant called Rhalgr’s Rest, it’s all about creating a tight-knit group. “I want us to be a little more popular, but I refuse to budge on our policies that keep us safe, in our own self-run bubble,” they tell Fanbyte. Because their venue is designed for a particular group, it can be flexible for whatever their community needs: it can be “a social hub.. a bard stage, a dancers’ getaway… vulgar and rowdy or calm and sober.”
No matter which kind of venue you’re running, all the owners I talked to agreed that regulars make the place special. Building a venue is essentially creating a collaborative setting where players can write the story. Without characters bringing them to life, roleplaying settings just feel empty. And the deeper the characters, the better the story.
To Chihaya, who runs a tavern called the Inkwell, regulars are the part that’s “worth the effort to keep going.” Like the Gin Ironic, the Inkwell is a comfy spot with its own set of quirks: they regularly host a fight night and have a bartender with an unfortunate tendency to set things on fire. Talon feels similarly; regulars are what keep them open every single evening. While both players acutely feel the stress of running a venue — as Talon says, it’s “mentally taxing” — it’s the persistent communities they’ve built that keep them going.
Beloved customers aside, like all social spaces, roleplaying venues also bring the potential for social problems. Some players come just to gawk because they think the entire concept of roleplaying in MMORPGs is funny. Sometimes, misbehavior happens in character when someone roleplays something unpleasant like fighting or stealing without everyone’s consent.
Unfortunately, very few in-game mechanisms exist for dealing with someone who’s misbehaving. You can’t kick someone off your in-game property once they’re inside. Your only option if they refuse to leave is to report them to Square Enix’s moderators, with widely variable results and response times. Sometimes, moderators are even actively antagonistic to roleplayers; one GM in particular raised players’ ire last year by issuing penalties to anyone who had any kind of roleplaying venue advertised in Party Finder.
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On Primal, that particular event drove the rise in popularity of a Discord server (on which I’m a moderator) for venue owners to discuss how to handle advertising and running venues. When the matter died down, the server took on a different primary purpose: hundreds of venue owners publicly sharing venue blacklists and information about problem players.
Despite the occasional issue, players still flock to these venues. On top of roleplaying, they showcase some of the most interesting ways players can get creative. Many venues are elaborately decorated. Most have websites dedicated to hosting their menu and information. At the Allure Lounge, previously featured in another Fanbyte article, there’s a live DJ and dancers have intricately coordinated dance macros for monthly theme nights.
Some places are structured entirely around audience participation. This is the case for the numerous fight clubs on Crystal, with perhaps the most well-known being the Grindstone. Rather than taking place in a brick-and-mortar location, players come together to duke it out for a prize outside Ul’dah. The tournament, which has been taking place weekly for over eight years, is currently run by a player who goes by Warren. The Grindstone, he says, is all about letting people showcase their creativity. To Warren, the Grindstone is all about letting people show their creativity — and a good fight is one that finds the sweet spot between over- and underselling.
“If [someone’s] last hit is chopping you in the neck, don’t have your trachea collapse,” he says. “But don’t say ‘I’m not even taking this seriously.’”
To me, a good roleplaying venue is one that can find a similar sweet spot between drama and silliness. They’re places like Allison’s, where people can meet to concoct serious stories, but where you can also find the bartender kicking the orchestrion because she can’t get it to work.
While the venue scene has existed for years, it’s hard to talk about socializing in games without talking about the effects of COVID-19. Quarantine has kept many people way more indoors and online than before. In the case of roleplaying venues, we’ve just seen a lot more of them; for a while, it seemed like every roleplayer lucky enough to get a house in this limited market was opening a venue.
Some of the venue owners I talked to, like Allison and Talon, opened their places during quarantine. Those who were around before the pandemic noticed a big difference. Chihaya points out that, while there are way more new players, there are also so many new venues open at the same time that attendance is much less predictable.
But most people I talked to agreed that having the social place of a venue has made things a little more bearable. At Allure, says DJ Saina, the guest book has been filled with messages from players who are grateful for a “club” experience they can still find virtually. To Allison, there’s also something specifically meaningful about being together in the gamespace. “Having to make the choice to place your character in a specific spot to be talking to these other characters, it adds some weight to it compared to just a group DM,” she says.
What keeps me coming back to FFXIV’s roleplaying scene is how rich it is underneath the surface. I’ve been playing since 2.0 but only started roleplaying in 2019. Even when I started, I was amazed by the number of venues operating in the player housing wards and the emergent ways that players were finding to be creative — all of which I’d had only a vague inkling. As time went on, I dug deeper until I realized there was no end to the complexity. I’m still hurtling down the rabbit hole two and a half years later, struggling not to turn this piece into a dissertation because there’s just so much to say.
A big part of what’s kept me around is the people I’ve met, which make up a vibrant community I’ve been lucky enough to join and contribute to. The iceberg that is FFXIV’s venue scene did for me what raiding, Limsa chat, and free companies failed to do: it got me to stick with the game without taking breaks, to make real friends and connect with them at a time that felt particularly lonely.
“At the end of the day, I’m meeting people,” says Allison. “Being there for each other, all of those good things that come with meeting people. And I don’t get that from any other part of FFXIV.”